Three questions from the 1964 Freedom Summer

[ 4 ] Comments

by James Goldberg


A few days ago, my brother made the observation that Americans often remember the parts of the 1960s civil rights movement that focused on greater integration of black people into the larger culture, but pay less attention to what people worked on to build up the black community internally at the same time.

For example, the voter registration efforts in Mississippi in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 are often cited as an important part of our history. But we might also learn something by remembering the Freedom Schools set up that same summer, which served both to give segregated students access to college-prep curriculum and to encourage conversations about the future of the black community in America.

The Freedom Schools’ citizenship curriculum, for example, was organized around three important questions:

1. What does the majority culture have that we want?
2. What does majority culture have that we don’t want?
3. What do we have that we want to keep?

I think those discussion questions are brilliant, because they give participants the chance to sort through the complicated feelings that come with belonging to a minority culture in a reflective way. The questions give you permission to borrow without assimilating, to critique without wholesale rejecting, and to discuss your own traditions on their terms without having to justify them by majority mindsets and values.

I also think that we as Latter-day Saints today, in any society, would benefit from discussing the same three questions. We are a separate culture within our various majority host cultures, and I think we ought to remember that as we sort out which majority culture values we want to integrate into our culture and which would disrupt something we don’t want to lose.

What does the majority culture have that we want?
What does majority culture have that we don’t want?
What do we have that we want to keep?

Cross posted at Mormon Midrashim

Photo credit:Creative Commons License Mike Licht via Compfight

About James Goldberg

James Goldberg's family is Jewish on one side, Sikh on the other, and Mormon in the middle. Goldberg co-edits the Everyday Mormon Writer literary website, teaches composition and creative writing courses at BYU, and blogs at Mormon Midrashim. His debut novel, The Five Books of Jesus, was published in September 2012.

4 Responses to Three questions from the 1964 Freedom Summer

  1. Adam G. says:

    They *sound* like great questions. But the black community has hit the rocks in a number of ways since then. Not that this ‘borrow-and-preserve’ mentality is the reason for it, but it does at least give you pause.

  2. Bonnie says:

    My thoughts are very separatist as well, but probably because I’m preparing my GD lesson for next week (after a Stake Conference, so only lesson 3) on the First Vision and the focus I keep feeling is the Lord’s statement to “join none of them.” I keep finding myself led to sources and apostles’ talks about coming out from the world and leaving behind what is there that entices. Perhaps it’s my personal feeling that the separation needs to be happening in earnest and we are complacent about having one foot in the world and one foot in the church and feeling comfortable there. (I’ve got to quit reading Nibley if I want to control my blood pressure.)

    The majority culture has diversity. I think we as Latter-day Saints could get better at divining what is cultural and what is doctrinal and be a bit more open-minded instead of making everything an issue of salvation. My daughter came in and told me (after deleting her facebook account) that one of her friends is not allowed to say “poop” but there are some basic gospel principles on which they differ, even though the families are both active. Yeah, we rolled our eyes, but that’s because we are still working on our charity. I doubt having “poop” in my vocabulary is going to keep me out of heaven, but looking down on others will, so I’ll focus there.

    The majority culture has A LOT that I don’t want, and the list grows longer daily.

    What I have that I want to keep is the most intriguing question to me. I spend a fair amount of time delving a bit further back in time for that stuff, and it opens my eyes. We are a lot more worldly as a church than I think we want to admit, but then, I’m not called to call anyone else to account. So I work on my charity and study and keep reducing our reliance on worldly things.

  3. jendoop says:

    What does the majority culture have that we want?

    In my opinion the majority culture has political influence and Mormons want more of that. (Mitt Romney dreams anyone?) Any person gets uncomfortable with the idea that someone else has control over their circumstances. In America I believe that many LDS people are uncomfortable with the idea that the majority of America feels differently than they do and they have political control over the circumstances under which they and their children live. In other words people with different morals and beliefs than us are making decisions about how we can exercise our morals and beliefs. It brings up fears from an unpleasant history that Mormons are regularly taught (even if told to forgive and forget).

    What does the majority culture have that we don’t want?
    We don’t want our children to suffer from sins they see portrayed as normal behavior in popular culture. We don’t want the world’s standards to pollute the values we’re trying to perpetuate, which is the answer to the third question. We want to keep our values while still being in the world. We want modesty and fashion. We want romance and purity. We want power and humility. The list goes on and on.

    After writing all of this I wonder if these issues are more about what God is trying to teach us than it is some kind of political or cultural interior change that needs to be made. It isn’t like the Freedom Schools – they were fighting for something valuable and needed, basic rights, in their community. I wonder if we shouldn’t want and need those things we’re bristling for? (Insert picture of having a cake and eating it too.)

  4. Paul says:

    James, provacative questions, to be sure. In our culture we actively teach the leaving of Babylon, and (as Elder Maxwell used to say) our not visiting our summer home there. With the children of Israel as our model, it seems we are always fleeing “the world,” at least in some ways.

    That said, it would appear our sub-culture still aspires to wealth (perhaps for altruistic means, but not necessarily) and the comforts that pertain to it. We certainly hope for education, not only in matters of spirituality, but also in all areas of academia, as counseled in the Doctrine and Covenants. And I think we hope for what we in the US believe are our inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    It seems that we also seek an influence on the public square, though what that looks like differs even among us (think Mitt Romney vs. Harry Reid). Like most of my neighbors, I want safety for my children and a future that is bright and hopeful for them. I want economic prosperity that will allow my children resources to ride the waves of life, including the bumps in the road (sorry for the mixed metaphor…I’m thinking while I type).

    What don’t we want? Plenty, though I suspect the list differs depending who we ask. Of course we’d like to live in the world, but not of it — somehow insulated from (or protected from, or at least resistant to) its evil influences. I’d prefer my children enjoy an environment where righteousness is encouraged and rewarded rather than mocked and derided. I’d like them to be safe, physically and spiritually (though I admit that at least the latter is not something I can ensure).

    What do I want to keep? Covenants. Ordinances. Access to scriptures and personal revelation that come through living the gospel. An open and inviting mind that allows others to view their lives as they do, not as I do, and understanding to help me to do that (that’s not necessarily something I always have, but I do in the ideal, at least).

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